Sunday, November 6, 2011

BIFF Reviews: The New Batch

Mysteries of Lisbon: I went into Mysteries excitedly anticipating a gorgeously mounted, twist-filled melodrama and that’s exactly what I got. Yet even as you cheer for me – you are cheering for me, right? – shed a few tears for the poor soul who didn’t realise he was making a four hour commitment. Still he didn’t have it so bad: Mysteries is an entrancing film.

Formally it’s absolutely dazzling. Ruiz almost never cuts within scenes. Instead he chooses to reframe the action by moving the camera in fluid pans. His use of light is equally impressive. One hesitates to use the word painterly but this picture begs the comparison: grim scenes in particular are positively Goya-esque and his figures are arranged with a near theatrical position: careful attention has been paid to their heights and positioning. Nonetheless it  never feels overly stiff or mannered, not when he’s doing things like drawing out the comical possibilities of a fight by framing it through a carriage window.

As for the narrative it’s all high class soap opera: Full of reversals of fate, unbearable shame and secret identities – not to mention mysterious figures. The way he shoots such things, including a ghostly apparition which almost imperceptibly glides towards the camera, gives them a dignity and emotional tug not always achieved in camper affairs. 

However there’s not much more to it than surface pleasures. I’ve read some who argue that it’s about class, and there is something in that. The camera is constantly keeping servants – often treated as nonexistent by their masters – in the corners of shots. Furthermore towards the end a pauper explains that all the epic travails we’ve just witnessed are nought but daily struggles for the poor. But it really goes no further or deeper than this. It’s a motif to be sure but no more significant than, say, all the missed connections in North by Northwest.

Still, while it might have been a better film had it been more deeply resonant, it’s still an elegantly crafted entertainment and probably as worthy a final film as has ever been made. 
*One could also argue it’s about identity and I think there’s a stronger case be made for this but I’d need another viewing to see if anything can be made of it.

Le Havre: The first thing one notices about Le Havre is the production design: all pastel blues broken by the bright colours of significant objects and people. One also notices the faces of the cast: all lined and creased and often marked by the kind of unusual features one rarely sees outside of true indie productions.

This sets the tone for the rest of the film. It's highly stylised, light as air and topped off with a eucatastrophe engendered by goodwill. Yet it's also knowing and wry: the barbs of armchair cynics are frequently deployed against authority figures and it has a streak of black humour running through it. Still, this well balanced tone doesn’t quite work for the subject matter at hand: asylum seekers. Despite going to great lengths to encourage our sympathy through its characterisations (the refugee is a polite, urbane boy and his protector is a genteel, warm alcoholic) it isn't convincing as a political tract. Its tactics are too broad: Anyone who might think of asylum seekers as illegal immigrants is going to brush off its homilies about “real crime”.

Therefore as a message film it strikes me as a bit of a failure. Le Havre isn't smart or rigorous enough to change minds, it's only warm enough to reassure the converted.

The Boxer’s Omen: I was wondering what kind of aesthetic they’d select for the mystery film -- turns out they were going for “batshit crazy”. It is with a heavy heart then that I must report that The Boxer’s Omen just wasn’t crazy enough for me. Sure, the sorcerer’s duels are, on a moment-by-moment level, pretty bizarre: I can’t honestly claim that I expected the evil sorcerer to kill an unidentifiable pink thing, slice it in half, spray its blood on crocodile skulls and watch while evil bats crawled their way out of the eye sockets. And there is a great gag where the Thai baddies eat disgusting things in order to resurrect their leader (including durian!): one acolyte picks up a banana, peels it, throws it away and chows down on the skin!

Unfortunately the actual plot is pretty banal. The good guy must avenge his disabled brother and defeat evil spirits. So, yes, there is a training sequence and, yes, he suffers a minor setback after giving into lust and, yes, he does redeem himself and vanquish evil. It’s equally prosaic on a formal level. There’s no sign that a truly touched auteur in the mould of House’s Nobuhiko Ohbayashi ever got near this thing. Instead we get what feels like a perfectly competent Shaw Brothers workman.

It’s also a bit too much of an exploitation film to fully dig it on a, “hey, we’re just all having a silly time at the flicks level”. While I’ve got nothing against gratuitous sexy times the first one arrives when our hero’s random women is undressing for bed and her man is hit with a irresistible sexual urge that he just has to satisfy – even if his woman isn’t really up for it. Then there’s it’s orientalist portrayal of Buddhism in which the four noble truths become four vows which should never be broken – especially if you’re going to commit adultery man, really, just don’t do it: it’ll only lead to trouble when you need to defeat the evil reincarnated devil woman and her three dinosaur-birthing henchmen.

Okay I am coming across as a bit of a kill-joy here and, as that last sentence suggests, I honestly did enjoy large chunks of this so perhaps I’m being a little unfair. Still, when you want “batshit insane” I suggest you grab a copy of House instead, or something from Shion Sono. There’s no substitute for a genuinely unhinged sensibility.

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